SALT LAKE CITY — Early in Outside Mullingar, the elderly Irish farmer Tony Reilly complains that his son, Anthony, “draws no strength from the land.” Yet, by the conclusion of this lyrical, understated play, it becomes clear that their farm, which has been in the family for over a hundred years, has every bit as much of a hold on the inhibited Anthony as it ever did his father. Outside Mullingar, the most recent work by John Patrick Shanley, best known for his Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt, enjoyed a well received, limited run on Broadway early last year. In its Utah premiere, director Julie Kramer realizes Shanley’s limber script with a canny, rural dignity, brilliantly embodied by the cast’s four exceptional performances. Pioneer Theatre Company’s disarming production reveals that Anthony’s strength, whether he draws it himself or is given it, unquestionably flows from the land.
Spanning the years 2008-13, the play opens on the Reilly farm, just outside Mullingar, Ireland, immediately after the funeral of the proprietor of the next farm over, Christopher Muldoon. As the Reillys commiserate with Muldoon’s widow, Aoife (played by Sybil Lines), and daughter Rosemary (Amy Bodnar), Tony (Max Robinson) half-seriously floats the idea of selling his own farm to his nephew in America before he dies, citing his aforementioned skepticism about his son’s connection to the land, the fact that Anthony takes after his mother’s side, and Tony’s fear that the forty-something and single Anthony (Tom O’Keefe) will never have a child to inherit it.
Yet, the land has other plans. Decades earlier, Tony sold a very small parcel of the farm to Christopher Muldoon in order to buy his wife a proper wedding ring. This narrow strip blocks the Reillys’ access to the road, making the farm unsellable without it. Now that Christopher has passed, Tony expects to be able to buy it back — not only to explore the possibility of a sale, but also to avoid opening and closing the two gates he must pass through every time he goes to or from the road. However, though most of Christopher’s property now belongs solely to Aoife, he long ago signed his piece of the Reilly farm over to Rosemary, who is absolutely immovable on the question of giving up her claim to Tony Reilly’s right of way. Despite a longstanding grudge against Anthony, she refuses to play any part in separating him from his inheritance.
This first impression does not really do Tony Reilly justice. Despite his curmudgeonly demeanor towards his son, it is clear as the play progresses that he loves and appreciates him. Robinson imbues Tony with an endearing, skin-deep testiness that flakes away with time and the character’s physical decline. A later scene between father and son, as Tony nears death, quietly affirms their mutual affection. As Anthony attends to Tony’s requests, helps him adjust his oxygen tank, and arranges his legs as he sits or lies down, O’Keefe invests Anthony’s every gesture and touch with a gentleness that is utterly convincing in its devotion. When they embrace and express their love for each other, the payoff is at once honest and believable. Both actors’ preparation over the preceding scenes in anticipation of this emotional beat combine to bring it off without a hint of sentimentality.
The set, by Daniel Meeker, is appropriately spartan: two farmhouse kitchens, a stone shed, some rock outcroppings, and a brooding sky. In earlier scenes, the proscenium border closes in to surround the interior settings, blocking out the sky and emulating the “suffocation of the stars” that Anthony describes at one point. In the above bedroom scene, the house’s structure is conspicuously absent, with only the mobile proscenium to suggest the outline of an attic garret. A single window, bright with stars, hangs suspended against the blackness, as if vainly trying to hold the night sky back like a dam.
Finally, in the last scene between Anthony and Rosemary, the borders retreat, expanding the scope of the proscenium and releasing the pent-up expanse of swirling clouds, allowing it to breathe as secrets long kept are finally dusted off and exposed to the fresh air in a cathartic, exhilarating concluding sequence. O’Keefe’s introverted Anthony (who by his own admission doesn’t much care for people) and Bodnar’s long-suffering Rosemary (a bit “cracked” in her mother’s estimation) give a master class of restraint, of subtlety, of tension and build-up that ultimately give way in an emotional climax that is one-hundred percent earned.
In an earlier scene, Anthony describes for Rosemary his attachment to the land: “There’s the green fields, and the animals living off them. And over that there’s us, living off the animals. And over that there’s that which tends to us and lives off us. Whatever that is, it holds me here.” Moreover, in the end, it is the ring Tony Reilly bought for his wife, carved out of the land itself, which grants Anthony the strength to do what must be done to make the farm whole again.
As with many a romantic play, the end may never have been in much doubt. Shanley’s script covers little in the way of new ground as it weaves together the characters’ lives as it does their land, but he does so with such grace that one cannot help but be charmed by the familiar pattern. Most tellingly, there are a handful of lines and moments that, in any other script, with performances any less expert, could not be anything but absurd — yet in the capable hands of Shanley, Kramer, Bodnar, and O’Keefe, they are not only inevitable, but poignant. Against all reason, they work… and work wonderfully.